• Academy Names 5th Copeland Fellow: Michael A. Harrell Jr., MD

    The Robert A. Copeland Jr., MD, Advocacy Education Fund was established in 2018 to honor the late founding chairman of ophthalmology at Howard University, who had a history of engaging members-in-training in advocacy and who desired greater engagement in advocacy by all ophthalmologists. Fittingly, the fund historically has covered the annual expenses for one resident to attend the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum and Congressional Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., as an Advocacy Ambassador.

    On Selecting the Copeland Fellow

    The Academy and the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States, recognized Michael A. Harrell Jr., MD, as the fifth annual Copeland Fellow for 2022. 

    After graduating from the Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Harrell reported to active duty in the U.S. Navy. Upon completion of his four-year service, he matched into the  Boston University/Boston Medical Center Ophthalmology Residency Program, where he is a current resident. As an active member of the National Medical Association, Dr. Harrell is engaged in research addressing different ways to improve the ethnic and racial diversity of the ophthalmology workforce. He plans to specialize in retinal disease and comprehensive ophthalmology following a medical retina fellowship at Northwestern University.

    YO Info interviewed Dr. Harrell about the importance of racial diversity in ophthalmology and his concerns with scope of practice expansion.

    What prompted you to apply for the Copeland Education Fund?

    I participated in the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador program last year and was pleased to learn of the advocacy efforts at the national level by our professional society. During Mid-Year Forum 2021, I was able to hear experts describe the biggest issues threatening and impacting our ability to provide exceptional care to all of our patients, including scope of practice expansion and reimbursement threats. 

    The Copeland Education Fund is another fantastic opportunity for me to continue to learn about these issues and start to figure out how I can use my interests, influence, talents and skills to best bring about effectual change. 

    What are your thoughts on racial diversity and its importance in ophthalmology today?

    My two greatest areas of research interest are 1) addressing health care disparities in ophthalmic/visual health that are based upon racial and ethnic inequality and 2) improving the lack of underrepresented minorities in the ophthalmology workforce. 

    Studies have indeed demonstrated that health outcomes improve when there is race concordance between the patient and health care provider. And in my own experience, there is a stronger bond between patient and doctor when the patient recognizes a shared sense of culture or identity with their physician. 

    Studies have also demonstrated that the number of underrepresented minorities in the ophthalmology workforce severely lag behind those of many other specialties and do not mirror the landscape of the U.S. population. Furthermore, in the United States, the percentage of underrepresented minority trainees and faculty in ophthalmology has been stagnant — if not declining — over the past several years.

    As such, racial diversity in our specialty is very important. There must be multifaceted and intentional work done to improve this — targeting each step of the pipeline. The care of our most vulnerable patients depends upon it. 

    Were there any issues that were particularly critical for you to speak up on at Mid-Year Forum 2022?

    I’m particularly concerned about scope of practice expansion for optometrists in several states as well as in VA hospitals. There is a looming possibility for this expansion to cause frank harm to our patients. Only trained ophthalmologists should be performing incisional eyelid surgery or using laser technology to manage eye diseases, for example.

    Ophthalmologists devote years learning “whole body” medicine. We also train for an additional four years to learn about the complexities of the eye and the visual system as well as the potential systemic implications of our therapies and treatments. 

    Optometrists simply do not receive the same training and are often not familiar with the special considerations or rare complications that might arise during surgery — nor do they have the necessary experience to appropriately manage these situations.  

    I’m excited to learn more about how I can help lobby against this scope creep in my state and at the federal level. 

    What are some different steps that young ophthalmologists can take to get involved in advocacy? 

    Participate in meetings like Mid-Year Forum that are sponsored by the Academy! If you’re unable to attend the Mid-Year Forum, attending the annual meeting is another great way to learn all about ways to get involved in advocacy. Also, take the time to get involved in your own local societies to learn about the specific issues in your own locales.  

    Donating to OPHTHPAC is another invaluable way to advance the profession’s advocacy efforts. OPHTHPAC is the lobbying arm of our organization and can provide essential tools for individuals. It also functions to lobby on our behalf. 

    I’ve also found a tremendous wealth of collective knowledge, mentorship and expertise among the physicians in the National Medical Association’s Ophthalmology Section. During its annual convention, much attention is given to finding solutions to issues that disproportionately affect our African American patient population.